COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Off to a somewhat demoralizing start in its inaugural SEC season, Missouri really needed a break.
A week off helped rid the aftertaste of a 32-point loss at home to top-ranked Alabama and the Tigers (3-4, 0-4 SEC) could be finally getting a bit of a breather in the schedule. Even without quarterback James Franklin, sidelined by a sprained left knee, they are two-touchdown favorites to beat Kentucky on Saturday and finally secure victory No. 1 in their new conference.
“I feel like the team is amped up to get the season turned around a little bit,” wide receiver Marcus Lucas said. “We’re all playmakers, and we all have the ability to change games. That’s all we have to focus on.”
The Wildcats (1-7, 0-5 SEC) have lost six in a row, although last week they lost by just five points at home to No. 12 Georgia. Coach Joker Phillips said he hasn’t seen a drop in enthusiasm, likely because the team is so young.
There are 14 freshmen playing, among the most in the nation, and out of 80 recruited scholarship players 55 are freshmen or sophomores. In the secondary that surrendered 427 yards passing against Georgia, Kentucky has a senior, sophomore and six freshmen on the two-deep chart.
“I think a lot of it has to do with a lot of freshmen starting,” Phillips said. “The guys came here to play, that’s what we sold them, and that brings enthusiasm.”
Besides the youth, Kentucky is minus many of its skill position players.
“It’s created a lot of challenges for us,” Phillips said. “When you don’t have your best two runners and your best quarterback, it makes it really, really tough.”
Increasing the degree of difficulty, Missouri is the third school in four games on the schedule that didn’t play the previous week. And the Wildcats have been shaky on the road, getting outscored 119-21 by Louisville, Florida and Arkansas.
A potential plus would be the return of quarterback Patrick Towles from a high ankle sprain and he could rotate with Jalen Whitlow.
Missouri redshirt freshman quarterback Corbin Berkstresser has been operating behind a patchwork line, and the Tigers were held to minus-3 yards rushing against Alabama. Coach Gary Pinkel and players both looked at the bye week as an opportunity to start fresh in search of an eighth straight bowl bid.
Besides the Alabama rout, the Tigers lost by 21 points to South Carolina and Georgia, and were upset at home earlier this month by Vanderbilt.
“Kentucky’s had their problems also throughout the season,” Pinkel said. “But then again, as I look at this whole thing, this whole thing’s about us, and how we play. And how we go out there and compete for this win.”
Last season, the school also was 3-4 at this juncture before winning five of its last six including a victory over North Carolina in the Independence Bowl. Pinkel’s mantra: one win at a time.
“You start doing math, ‘We’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do this,’ you lose sight of the most important thing, and that’s this one game,” Pinkel said. “We’re very consistent. What we do works. We coach better, we play better, we’ll win more.”
The week off meant more preparation time for just the third meeting between the schools, and first since 1968. The Tigers are hoping that translates to more offense.
“You try to think that’s going to be an advantage, and it should be,” offensive coordinator Dave Yost said. “Our kids got extra time to watch the video and they also got some time to get away and get their batteries recharged and everything. I think this comes at a good time with the number of games we have left.”
Missouri’s top offensive threat has been sophomore Marcus Murphy, who leads the nation with four kick returns for touchdown. The Tigers will try to increase Murphy’s carries, too.
“Every time you see Murph out there, everyone goes crazy,” wide receiver Marcus Lucas said. “Everyone stands up, and everyone’s into it.”
Kentucky limited Georgia to a season-low 77 yards rushing on 32 carries last week. Linebacker Avery Williamson had 13 tackles, his fifth double-digit effort of the season.
“What gave us a chance was not allowing to run the ball like this Georgia team would like to have done,” Phillips said. “We can’t allow teams to run the ball at will on us.”